Last summer about this time of year my family and I were camped in a far corner of a local campground, up against a recently harvested woodlot. It was peaceful and quiet, we loved the seclusion. One evening, my husband (who happens to be an ornithologist) and I were sitting around the campfire when we heard the distinctive song of a Whip-poor-will coming from the logged area. We were thrilled! We only heard the bird sing briefly, but it was music to our ears. This insect-eating bird of young forest habitats is well known for its distinctive three-note call.
Audubon's Field Guide describes the call as "a loud rhythmic whip-poor-will, repeated over and over, at night." It's quite haunting and magical, and was a common night sound on the historic landscape. It was so common in fact, that I've had countless "old timers" ask me: "Where have all the Whip-poor-wills gone?" You see, it's become rare to hear a Whip-poor-will, and that's why we were so excited to hear one around the campfire.
Eastern Whip-poor-will populations have declined 60% over the past 45 years (and they are not alone).
Why Have Their Numbers Dwindled So Much?
There are two leading causes. First, Whip-poor-wills are insectivores (insects are their primary food), and most of our insectivorous birds are in decline due to lack of food. Our widespread use of pesticides has resulted in an overall decline of insects, thereby affecting insectivorous birds (among other insectivores like bats). Secondly, their habitat has been in rapid decline. They prefer open, young hardwood forests, which are now uncommon in this part of the world. Forest maturation and increasing development are major factors. Contrary to popular perception, timber harvesting can greatly benefit many species of wildlife, including our Whip-poor-will. In my case, the recent logging next to the campground had attracted this summer breeder. If you are a forestland owner, you too can attract many species of young forest-dependent wildlife through forestry practices that mimic natural disturbances. On behalf of the Whip-poor-will, American Woodcock, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and many others, I enjoy working closely with the eco-minded landowner to plan responsible, sustainable timber harvests that enhance forests for wildlife.
Did you know? Whip-poor-wills that breed in Maine overwinter in Honduras, so be sure to drink bird-friendly coffee if you want to help conserve these birds and ensure that more come back to breed here each year.
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